Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why Stories Matter

I love stories. It's the reason I love what I do--I immerse myself in narrative. And I believe stories matter. A great deal. And I don't just mean fictional narrative (although there's nothing better than curling up with a big fat novel on a rainy day in a comfy armchair with a warm mug of tea), I mean stories that we tell each other. Stories can be instructive, they can warn us, but they can also give us hope and inspiration.

I was listening to an NPR program about a lawyer who did some pro bono work for the family of the Virginia Tech shooter. As you can imagine, this family was in shock and grief and pain, and they wanted to figure out a way to reach out to the world and apologize for the actions of their son. And this attorney helped them convey this message--of the deepest sorrow and mourning--of darkness neverending--that they were so sorry for what their son had done and would be grieving until the end of their days. And the attorney said that his office received thousands of messages from around the world--messages of kindness and empathy, reaching out to the family in their grief, and the attorney's voice as he was talking about it, started to choke up and he said that he was overwhelmed at the kindness--that he didn't realize how kind people could be.

I sat in my car mesmerized by his story. Because in the face of such devastating tragedy and horror, there was also this story. A story about a family in grief and people responding with kindness instead of anger and retribution.

And I know that life isn't that simple (as the inner cynic is quick to remind me), but I also know that stories matter. The stories we share with one another, the ones we read, the ones we watch--they matter tremendously.

So on that note, I'm going to leave you with a paragraph from a novel I enjoy quite a bit, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. It's probably my favorite paragraph in the English language--it is a paragraph that I love so much, I wish I had the genius to write such a sentiment, because it feels so true.

"It didn't matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don't deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don't surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you life in. Or the smell of your lover's skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won't. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again.
That is their mystery and their magic."
--Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (218-219)


Genepool said...

Well of course stories matter. Not just the ones in print either!

Stories where my bread and butter growing up. I was the weird kid who would rather sit in the library than play football or basketball. I learned early on that knowledge will not impress anyone who does not wish to learn. In fact, a good vocabulary shared among morons will likely earn you only contempt. Nothing like being talked down to by someone with a 4th grade reading level for using "big words". Even if they are only two syllables long.

Good stories were all around me as a kid. Sunday evening in the San Francisco bay area I would rush to bed to listen to the old Mystery Theater shows created in the 30's and 40's, my imagination giving illustration to the words in living color.

I read the Hobbit at age 9 on my bed with a dictionary nearby to help with the hard words. I was rather distressed when it was over.

Other stories might question the nature of our lives and work. For instance, I work in a prison. A level 4 prison in California that houses some of the worst offenders in the state. But occasionally you run across an inmate who makes you wonder about the justice system and the pitfalls of the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law.

I had an older gentleman in my building, 88 years old. I can't print his name obviously, but the guy was a genuine character. A decorated World War 2 veteran, he had spent three years in a Japanese POW camp. Unlike a lot of inmates, he had a good support group, that being, a family that loved him and who kept in regular contact with him.

He would sit in his cell and tap away at an electric typewriter he has, writing stories about his prison experiences and fictional stories as well. I would read some of these when circumstances and time permitted, laughing at the writing style he had. It was like reading something penned in an early pulp magazine from the 1940's. But I was also amazed at his perspective. Everything he wrote he based solely on his own experience and yet, despite his imprisonment, I never saw a bitter word in anything he wrote. Quite a bit of irony, but little in the way of sarcasm or regret.

I asked one of the shot callers (inmates who for one reason or another are regarded as leaders within their races hierarchy) what the guys story was. Because this old timer got the royal treatment from his peers. By this I mean the white guys went out of their way to see he was taken care of.

I was told the fellow had killed his son-in-law. Apparently the guy he killed had regularly abused his wife and kids, the old fellows daughter and grandkids. Court orders didn't seem to help and only made the aggression worse.

So, when the guy called his ex-wife and told her he was going to smack her around, she believed him and called her father. Or course her father came over as did the abusive husband who was belligerent and threatening. He was warned not to come in the house, but did anyway and found himself with a rifle wound in short order. The guy staggered outside, still shouting obscenities and threats, so the World War two vet shot him again, killing him.

He was given a life sentence for his crime. It should be noted that had he not followed the guy outside and shot him a second time in the driveway, he would likely have stayed free in a self defense plea. The first shot would likely have killed the fool, but I guess where his family was concerned he figured better safe than sorry.

I sat and thought about that for quite some time. How someone who had lived so much and so long would be forced to spend his last few years away from the people who loved him most, because his families safety meant more to him than his freedom.

I confirmed the story later, and while some of the details were different, the basic premise was true. It was hard to see him as an inmate after that.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for sharing the story about the 88 year old inmate--that is a powerful story. And a powerful reminder about violence against women and that violence against women and domestic abuse is something that impacts men as well as women--so like with issues of race, I wish that we all understood that we are all impacted by such violence--that men suffer from domestic abuse and violence in ways, such as this story illustrates quite profoundly. Really, thanks for sharing.